Tuesday, April 26, 2016

From ‘Travels on My Elephant’ by Mark Shand

India shows what she wants to show, as if her secrets are guarded by a wall of infinite height. You try to climb the wall – you fall; you fetch a ladder – it is too short; but if you are patient a brick will loosen and then another. Once through, India embraces you …….

‘India is like an elephant,’ I was told. ‘She moves slowly.’

….he….told me that when one is buying an elephant, there are five points to look for that one doesn’t look for when buying a wife, and vice versa. Unfortunately, he could not remember what they were.

Gur is unrefined molasses, and to elephants it is like foie-gras to a gastronome. They love it.

With wonderful imagination, a trait seemingly inbred amongst artisans of Orissa.

As we entered Konarak the first rays of a glorious sunrise were illuminating the Black Pagoda, a temple of such solitary grandeur yet of such sensuality that my first impression was one of shock. I had been fortunate once, many years ago, to have visited an empty Taj Mahal on a bright moonlight night and had thought that nothing I would ever see could surpass it for its beauty. But the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum, a tomb, silent in its splendor while Konarak is alive, a constant motion of stone – celestial nymphs with swelling breasts and rounded hips, the rhythms of the lovers and the ecstasy on the faces of the erotic statues. Its energy is manifest in scenes of royal hunts and military expeditions, with infantry, cavalry and elephants marching in full regalia, speaking of the dream of an ambitious and mighty monarch….Konarak is the peak of Orissan architecture about which it is said that the artisans ‘built like Titans and finished like jewelers.’

Watching an elephant take a bath is a delight in itself, but bathing with, or washing an elephant is something close to experiencing paradise. When I reached the river she was lying at full length with a contented expression on her face. Bhim and Gokul were busily scraping her with stones and the normally grey skin on her protruding backside was already turning black and shiny. Occasionally the tip of her trunk emerged like the periscope of a submarine, spraying them playfully with water before disappearing again and blowing a series of reverberating bubbles.

Bhim began to reminisce in a mumbling voice. ‘Haathi, nicer than people. Only hurt if you trick. Never eat until haathi eat. If feed well always faithful. But not not steal haathi food. Haathi always know. Haathi wait. Then haathi attack. Many mahouts bad, steal haathi food. Bad mahout, dead mahout.’

There was something reassuring about an elephant close by. It was like being guarded by a huge jovial nanny, and I fell asleep dreaming of tigers and temples.

The invasions of Orissa had begun in AD 1205 with the purpose of securing the superior breed of elephants for which Orissa is famous. …..Invaded and occupied by the Mohammedans for five hundred years, the state of Orissa was plunged into further despair by the arrival of the Marathas…. ‘During the famine of 1770…..when people were dying in their hundreds of thousands ….went completely berserk and “raged like wild beasts across the country”.’

Considering their size, it is remarkable how elephants can move so soundlessly. Tara’s footsteps, at their loudest, resembled the shuffle of an old man wearing carpet slippers.

‘Elephants are like human beings, Sahib’ he whispered. ‘They like companionship. Don’t leave her for too long. Every evening before you sleep, talk to her. Tell her stories.’

In a matter of a mile, the difference between Orissa and Bihar became visible. It was like suddenly parting the leaves on the edge of a rain forest and stepping into a scorched desert. Gone was the colour, the lushness, the laughter, the languid sensuality that manifested itself in Orissa, to be replaced by a harsh, suspicious and angry terrain. It showed in the quality of the tea, the sudden absence of fresh paan, the drabness of the lunghis, the condition of the villages and, above all, in the people. Our attitude changed accordingly. Bhim and Gokul became nervous and unsure of themselves. …At a small bank we stopped to change travelers cheques. The manager could not understand why I wanted to travel through his state. ‘When God created Bihar, Mr Shand,’ he told me, ‘He was in a very bad mood.’

As elephants can sense fear in a human being, they can also sense anger.

We climbed steadily, up the southern fringe of the Chota Nagpur plateau. Cultivation surrounded us. There were no trees. This area had never recovered from the ruthless exploitation of the timber demands during the Second World War.

When drunk, elephants are like human beings – their reactions varying according to their characters. The naturally good-natured appear even more so, the aggressive become downright dangerous. Everybody, except myself, was dispersed. Bhim explained that although Tara would not cause any trouble, it was better she was with the two people she knew best and trusted.

We stopped to talk to the cowherd, an Oraon tribal, who showed us a selection of these bells. Each was exquisite and of a different design, and each unique in its sound, enabling him to distinguish in which direction individual cows had wandered. Aditya offered to buy one. The cowherd refused saying that he would offend the soul of the tree from which he had fashioned the bell, having asked the tree’s blessing before cutting it down. The tree is always chosen and felled on a Saturday and the bell then made on Sunday. During its creation, no clothes can be worn.

Elephants are like horses; they get most of their sleep standing up and will lie down only when they are sure that all the world is at rest. Being immensely cautious animals they are at their most vulnerable when in a prone position

It is difficult to explain why elephants should display such uneasiness towards dogs and horses, considering that neither is capable of inflicting on them the slightest injury.

…I set off through Haathi bazaar ….My nostrils were instantly filled with the evocative smells of India – spices, incense, the heavy scent of the tribal woman, mixed with the more pungent odour of urine and excrement, and found myself thinking I never wanted to leave.

….I asked the driver to stop. I walked slowly towards Tara, my mind detached, floating. Holding her tail, I clipped off three long springy hairs, the only memento I would take with me. It was then that Tara gave me my last lesson: elephants do weep. When I kissed her on her eye, one hot salty tear fell, staining my cheek. I walked quickly back to the car. We moved slowly away. I forced myself to look stonily ahead. But, as we rounded the corner, I turned and caught one last glimpse of her standing quietly, looking at me. Then she was gone, swallowed up in India’s dust.

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